By Christy Brissette, MSc, Registered Dietitian
The holiday season often means time spent with family and friends that usually involves lots of food. What should you do if you're going through cancer treatment and are dealing with side effects? What if your treatment is finished but you're having some delayed or late effects?
As best you can, try to spend time with family and friends who make you feel good. You may get invitations to lots of holiday dinners and parties, but be sure to conserve your energy and accept only what you can handle.
Here are some tips to help you eat well when you aren't feeling well during the holidays.
Before the Gathering
- If you're usually the host but are feeling tired, talk to your family and
see if someone else can host this year. It's OK to ask for help. Or, start a new tradition and go out to eat.
- Are you concerned that some of your side effects may make it difficult to eat certain foods? Let the host know if there are specific items you can't eat. Be ready with a list of things you can eat so you aren't leaving the host to come up with ideas. It's also helpful to
bring a few dishes you know you can eat so the host doesn't have to make extra items. Let the host know what you are bringing. They will appreciate that you want to help out.
- If you're worried about feeling nauseous at dinner, talk to the host about it.
Consider arriving after dinner for dessert or tea.
At the Gathering
Serve yourself so you can choose the foods that will help you manage your side effects. You can also choose smaller portions that you feel comfortable with.
- If you have a
sensitive stomach, rich foods can make things worse. Choose plain foods that are baked or steamed with little added fat. Try having some turkey with cranberry sauce instead of gravy. Try rice, baked potatoes or a dinner roll as a side. Add some plain vegetables. Talk to the host before the gathering to see what will be available and consider bringing your own side dishes.
- If your immune system has been weakened by your treatment,
be careful about food safety, especially if the food is served family- or buffet-style. Make sure hot foods are steaming hot and cold foods are on ice. It's also a good idea to avoid high-risk foods like sushi, devilled eggs and homemade eggnog. See below for more information on food safety.
- If you aren't sure how long foods have been sitting out, ask the chef or host. You can also stick to foods like cheeses (approved on the food safety handout) and crackers, chips, roasted nuts and cookies. These foods are safer bets because they can sit out longer.
For taste changes, ask the host the menu ahead of time to see if there will be foods that you can tolerate. You may want to bring a dish of your own that tastes okay for you.
- Too bland? Add sauces that provide strong flavours (like soy sauce, cranberry sauce, BBQ sauce).
- Too sweet? You can try adding a small sprinkle of salt, gravy or a savoury sauce to your food.
- Too salty? Choose foods that are more bland or sweet. Try adding sweet flavours such as a cranberry sauce.
- Metallic or bitter taste? Choose foods that are normally served cold or at room temperature, and eat with plastic utensils. Adding marinades and sauces may also be helpful.
- If you are having
difficulty swallowing, make sure that you choose foods that follow the recommended food textures provided to you by your registered dietitian or speech language therapist. You may want to eat prior to going to the holiday gathering. Otherwise, if you are following a minced or pureed diet, you will want to bring some of your own food to the gathering to ensure it was safely prepared. Remember to pay attention to your eating and swallowing. Avoid talking while eating to prevent distractions.
If you are not able to have foods or fluids by mouth, you may join the table to participate in the conversation and socializing. It may feel difficult to be at the table with others when you are unable to eat. If this is the case, you may want to join after the meal is over to socialize with family and friends.
More Information About Food Safety
You can read the Princess Margaret brochure "Food Safety for the Weakened Immune System" online. You can also pick up a physical copy of the brochure at the Princess Margaret Patient & Family Library.